Just (Don't) Do It
Maybe this year we’ve turned the tide on the myth of the resolution. It does appear from a very cursory browse of This Week in Self-Help Nonsense, most ‘journalists’ are now admitting to the futility of this wholly unhelpful ritual. This is a fun Google search phrase: “new year resolution failure” results in 250,000,000 hits. The top three were articles published within the last 24 hours essentially with the title: “Why resolutions are really stupid.” It’s like the whole world finally got the memo – don’t do it – and now we all are discussing why not instead of what are you going to #fail at this year.
Instead of making a resolution this year, let’s talk instead about why we don’t find it easy to change ourselves. Why is it so god damn difficult to make yourself stronger, smarter, faster, more disciplined, nicer, friendlier, warmer, more loving, more generous… just… better? Why do our good intentions virtually always get derailed?
I don’t know. I mean… I know, but I don’t at the same time. This is similar to my stance on changing organisational culture. I adamantly believe it is impossible even though I’ve actively designed and successfully implemented cultural change. Multiple times. Living proof with quantifiable data that it can be done, and I still think it’s all bullshit; You can’t change organisational culture. Similarly, you also can’t change yourself even though time after time I’ve either done it to myself or I’ve worked with others to do so with demonstrable success. Hell, I just #psychtrick’d myself into losing 20 pounds (9 kg but I still don’t find that nearly as satisfying even after 13 years outside the US). My bras don’t fit. My shorts almost fell off in the gym this morning, and I STILL don’t believe you can will yourself into losing weight.
But how? How do you change yourself? And let’s focus not on small marginal improvements but rather on the big, life altering changes. Here’s my hypothesis:
First, you need a motivator. In change management speak, your desire level needs to be off the charts. Whatever change you want to see in yourself has to feel profoundly immediate, necessary, and urgent. You can’t just want it… You have to need it right down to your bones. You can’t find time to study if you don’t desperately need to find a new career path. You can’t improve your engagement with your children, spouse, or friends unless you feel that you might literally be on the precipice of seeing them walk out of your life. You can’t lose weight and keep it off unless you perceive it as perilously close to a question of life or death. Whatever motivates you must be stronger than all other competing needs or wants so that you will put this one at the top of the priority list. The desire for this outcome must overwrite your craving for anything that might jeopardise the achievement of your particular goal.
Next, you must have a method. That sounds straightforward but there is a lot of devil in the details. Most people set a goal that is far too fuzzy to drive next actions and meaningful change. I’m going to ‘ ‘get fit’, ‘be nicer to my family’, ‘be a better leader’, ‘find a new career’, ‘save money’. How? HOW!? Be specific. Honestly, I have found no better method for virtually every type of goal than to start with a BHAG (Big Hairy Assed Goal) and the develop a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time Bound) next action. For example, I’m going to ‘lose weight’ by signing up for noom and following what it tells me to do religiously for 100 days. I’m going to ‘reduce my LDL cholesterol’ by going on a 5:2 fast for 12 weeks. I’m going to ‘learn Korean’ by downloading two language apps and working through 4 exercises on each per week for 4 months.
Finally, you need breathing room. I don’t believe you can afford to try to self-hack unless there is room in your life to do so. You can’t lose weight when your husband is in the hospital battling cancer. You can’t learn a new trade when you are working two jobs to keep a roof over your head. You can’t write your first novel while your first child is 3 months old. Be realistic. Change requires time, space, energy, focus. It’s resource intensive – emotionally, physically, economically. I’ve seen this problem time and time again. The motivator appears and drives action but paradoxically the very thing that brings the desire for the change is too damn exhausting to allow room for the change. The classic here is that most people only really feel motivated to find a new job when their current job is absolute shite and/or they are two hours post-redundancy interview. Sadly, that is probably the worst possible moment to actually work on getting a new role. There’s no breathing room. There’s no margin for error. Sure you’re motivated, but you really don’t have time for that shit. Update your LinkedIN now. Brush up your resume, ask for references, learn a new programming language… Right now. RIGHT NOW. Not when you are under a deadline or – worse yet – coming home every night and crying with misery over your horrible current job.
Now you can see why the artificiality of setting a goal on the 1st of the year is so stupid. Statistically speaking, the probability that you’ll have a motivator, a method, and breathing room coincidentally on that one day are astronomically small. Worse, by setting a goal without these three basics, you carve a grove into your psyche that resolutions don’t work, you create a pattern of failure that makes the contemplation of successfully changing yourself increasingly difficult.
But if you must… if you absolutely cannot resist the temptation to set a resolution this year… than make it this one. I will ask myself at least weekly “Is this it? Is this my moment? Is this that place in my life where I can spend some time on making myself better? Am I ready?” And if the answer is no, I will forgive myself. Each week, I will ask, and I will accept the answer… whether the answer is to lose 10 more pounds or to stop, sit on a folding chair outside the van, and eat the baguettes while sipping a Bordeaux. This year I will open myself to the possibility that there will be a moment in time where I will find a Motivator, a Method, and Breathing Room to make an important change, and when that door opens, I will stride through it with a take-no-prisoners confidence.
“Many years ago, I resolved never to bother with New Year’s resolutions, and I have stuck with it ever since.” ~ Dave Beard